Doreen Taylor Gets Her ‘Oscar’

An Off-Broadway musical fronts a hologram of Oscar Hammerstein II -- and faces headwinds.

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Doreen Taylor in "Sincerely, Oscar." Photo courtesy of the production.

The first half of April might have been frustrating and disappointing for performer-writer Doreen Taylor. After several years in development, her musical Sincerely, Oscar, tracing the life and career of Oscar Hammerstein II, is now running Off-Broadway, directed by Dugg McDonough. Instead of the critics showing up with their knives out and customarily sharpened, they came equipped with scythes and samurai swords and starting swinging. Some disliked Taylor’s performance; some found her featured co-star, Azudi Onyejekwe (fondly recalled from Broadway’s The Great Comet last season), more pleasing. But mostly they were baffled or alienated by the centerpiece of the show: a hologram of Hammerstein himself (played by actor Bob Meenan), providing most of the narrative.

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Here’s how the production concept was explained to Playbill.com:

Since the show’s early days, Taylor has dreamed of putting the lyricist-librettist front and center. So, short of bringing him back to life, she’s done the next best thing: ‘Sincerely, Oscar’ stars a state-of-the-art, 3D holographic version of Hammerstein — a hologram that talks, walks, and looks exactly like the late theatre legend…

…It’s about allowing Hammerstein to tell his story in his own words, says Taylor. All of his dialogue — and he has the most lines in the show — is rooted in Hammerstein’s real-life correspondence and writing, which Taylor was able to gain access to at Highland Farm, the site of Hammerstein’s prodigious output and now home to the museum.

Let’s face it: audiences will like what they like and love what (and whom) they love and theater artists will create the shows they create and the rest of us will either find it, fear it or flee from it — and that, baby, is called showbiz. But in thinking about how best to frame my interview with Taylor, conducted right before the opening of Sincerely, Oscar on Apr. 4, I couldn’t help but to think about director Daniel Fish’s radically deconstructed, often self-indulgent revival of Oklahoma!, which transferred to Broadway from St. Ann’s Warehouse and opened just three days later, on Apr. 7. My thought was — and is — this: why can’t we have a theater in which one artist can conceive a technology-forward revue about the life of this icon of 20th century musical theater, and another artist can turn Oklahoma! into a woke, Trump-era assault on American ideals that Hammerstein’s lyrics embodied?

Perhaps you should see Sincerely, Oscar and then see Oklahoma! and then think about the richness and the diversity of what our contemporary stage offers us. Everything cannot be everyone’s cup of joe. But I’d rather see an earnest, well-meaning attempt at creativity not quite succeed than a theater absent creativity. Call me a cockeyed optimist.

For tickets to Sincerely, Oscar click here.

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And now, 5 questions that Doreen Taylor has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

I can’t really recall any specific question that has stuck me as overly “perceptive,” per se, but it is usually very clear who understands and appreciates my craft versus who is just schmoozing me. I always appreciate the questions regarding the parts of my career that have been the most difficult and challenging and not just about the particular successes I have had along the way. In order to appreciate the light, you need to acknowledge the dark.

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

The worst question that I ever get (or at least the one that annoys me the most) is when I am doing an interview and the interviewer has not really done their homework. They start off by saying something like, “Tell me a little about yourself.” It always makes me feel like I am on a really bad first date.

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

It is always a question that has absolutely nothing to do with my career or what I do. When people start breaking out “If you could be a tree, what tree would you be?,” it is time for me to wrap it up.

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Given the biographies about Oscar Hammerstein II — not to mention that the musicals he co-wrote have been performed tens of thousands of times — what is there still to say, sincerely, about him that hasn’t been said? Why you?

While there are many biographies and revivals, most people rarely talk about Hammerstein without referencing his partner, Richard Rodgers. Sincerely, Oscar focuses solely on Oscar and the words he created. We all know the words Oscar wrote, but we rarely know why he wrote them and what his true feelings were about these works. Inspired by his memoirs, personal correspondence and rarely seen or heard interviews, Sincerely, Oscar tells Oscar’s own story of his journey to become, in my opinion, Broadway’s greatest lyricist. We explore his incredible works while highlighting what an amazing man he was. I guarantee everyone will leave the theater learning at least one new thing they didn’t know going in.

You’re using a hologram of Hammerstein? Explain how this came to be. What are the three big questions you’d ask Oscar if you could speak with him for real.

Recreating Oscar as a hologram has been nothing short of a labor of love. Inspired by some of the great things I’ve seen in Vegas and watching the evolution of the technology, very early on I got in my head that it would be amazing not only to have Oscar tell his own story, but to create a character as close to Oscar as “humanly” possible. I teamed up with an incredible crew, including Cory Weisman, who introduced me to MDH Hologram and Studio Tangram in Italy, and what we were all able to create through this technology is nothing short of incredible. …Oscar was a true pioneer in theater and someone well ahead of his time, pushing the envelope, so I truly feel the only way to adequately honor his genius is to push the envelope myself and do something no other show has ever done before, on or Off-Broadway.

I also worked very closely with Oscar’s grandson, Will Hammerstein, while conceiving this show and although I have his blessing and praise for the way we portray his grandfather, I would very much like to ask Oscar if he himself is pleased with the show I have created.

I’d also love to ask him what he thinks of this new generation of jukebox, bio musicals and Hollywood adaptions and whether he likes how theater has evolved since his passing.

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Which Hammerstein lyric is the most emotionally difficult for you to access — and why? Which Hammerstein lyric is the most technically challenging for you to sing — and why?

Oscar’s lyrics are deceptively simple. While on the surface they seem simplistic, almost too saccharine at times, as I have lived with this show and grown with the text, nothing is further from the truth. I feel that may be the most difficult part of this process: to find the deeper meaning and subtext. So many people have performed his works, so many people have sung his shows — yet very few sit down and analyze what he was really trying to convey. High schools perform Oklahoma! all the time, yet if you peel back the layers of that piece, most would be shocked at how “adult” that show is. I guess the hardest part of this whole thing for me not only as the creator, but also a performer, was to dig deeply into those layers and stage what Oscar was thinking — and not what so many misguided directors have done to these works over the last 50 or 60 years. While none of the songs are “difficult” for me to access, I do find that often I am deeply moved by his lyrics while I am singing. Sometimes that makes it more difficult to get through — such as “If I Loved You” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Once I fully understood what was on the written page, it was impossible not to be moved.